Jakubisko is kin to Brazil’s Glauber Rocha, America’s Robert Downey, Mexico’s Alejandro Jodorovski, Yuri Ilyenko of the Ukraine, Sergei Paradzhanov of Armenia, Miklós Jancsó of Hungary, and in a way to Poland’s Stanislaw Kutz. They share a world in which the basic color is blood red, the dominant sign is that of death, the main diversion is violence, in which heroes dance a merry jig of revolution and war, only to add their heads to the others that have fallen.
– Antonín J. Liehm1
1969’s Czechoslovak-French co-production Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni (Birds, Orphans and Fools) is the quintessential Juraj Jakubisko film. Made in the immediate wake of 1968’s Prague Spring-crushing Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia, it’s a film of profound ambivalence, a work of great, fluid, unfettered exuberance at odds, in its tireless invention, with the concurrent despondent mood of the Czechoslovak nation, yet simultaneously in accord with it through its acerbic turn towards murderous pessimism in its later stages and in the gross irreverence it displays throughout towards narrative and formal norms, the verity and efficacy of the indexical image, sacrosanct Slovak icons of Czechoslovak resistance and nationhood and even towards the already revered film movement – the FAMU-bred2 Czechoslovak New Wave – to which it belongs.
Dubbed “the Slovak Fellini” at the 1968 Venice Film Festival, where the first part of his second feature Zbehovia a pútnici (The Deserter and the Nomads) won him the Little Lion Award for young artists, Jakubisko put the virtuosic flair for Slovak folklore-infused phantasmagoria he essayed (and shot himself) in that tripartite, post-World Wars I, II and III-set opus toward a film speaking less to the catastrophes of the recent past and of an imagined post-apocalyptic future, and more to those so raw in the present day, if retaining echoes of their precursors: to the dreams of freedom of the 1960s counterculture destroyed by the Soviet occupation.
Jakubisko dared to incorporate his own actuality footage of the 1968 invasion in Deserter. Birds, without explicitly referencing those events, presents a dilapidated, unmistakeably post-invasion world-gone-mad to which the only viable response – to embrace foolishness – is offered by the dramatis personae and the filmmakers both. (Playfully reflexive throughout, Birds opens thus: “Let me, Juraj Jakubisko, a Slovak film director, tell you…”. Yet this address is voiced by a child first, and then a woman, and was written by Birds and Deserter co-screenwriter Karel Sidon.3)
Setting a template for many of his films to follow, Birds concerns a threesome4 who bunker down together to collectively keep at bay the world’s ills, if not their rivalling affections for one another. Here it’s the sexually fluid Yorick (Jiří Sýkora), who was raised in an institution for children with intellectually disabilities; his best friend and flatmate Andrzej (Philippe Avron), a virginal Polish photographer, and Marta (Magda Vášáryová), a buzz cut-sporting young woman initially mistaken by Yorick for a man when he wakes up after a gay party – presented with remarkable matter-of-factness for the time – to find her in their apartment.
All three are orphans with a common bond in that, in Jakubisko’s words, “their parents murdered each other. The girl is Jewish; her folks were killed by the Nazis. The Communists were responsible for the deaths of the parents of one of the boys, and the Jews had killed the other boy’s parents.”5 In the spirit of 1960s utopianism, these horrors bond the trio, collegially and, by turns, romantically, rather than inspire them to intergenerational violence towards one another – at first, anyway.
Their sprawling, ramshackle home – the location used is the Academia Istropolitana, “one of the seven most important monuments in Bratislava”6 – is strangely porous, freely admitting entry and egress through a variety of unorthodox portals, including to an aged landlord (Míla Beran), young children and countless small birds. Its strewn furnishings afford many opportunities for ludic and giddily intertextual japes and dress-up set-pieces, including wardrobes (totemic in absurdist and surrealist Eastern European cinema7), baths, beds and, in one bravura sequence, a piano which transports the landlord in a manner evoking both filmmaking (the piano is manoeuvred as if a camera along dolly tracks) and the Holocaust (the piano and landlord’s destination, at the end of those tracks, is behind what appear to be the doors of an incinerator).
The apartment also houses a statue of Milan Rastislav Štefánik, co-founder of Czechoslovakia. A taboo figure during Communism, this marked the first time he was referenced in a Slovak film; daringly, Jakubisko has Yorick declare Štefánik his father when the trio visit the monumental memorial to him on Bradlo Hill. Štefánik, notably, died in a plane crash – on top of a number of images of little birds constrained in their movements, he’s one of several symbols in Birds alluding to the impossibility of sustained flight. Even the casting of Philippe Avron riffs on this theme; Jakubisko sought him after seeing him in Albert Lamorisse’s Fifi la plume (Circus Angel, 1965), in which he plays a cat burglar who has wings grafted onto him, only to have them ultimately severed by his lover.
The film is a dizzying ride. Cinematographer Igor Luther and composer Zdeněk Liška made for the perfect accomplices to realise Jakubisko’s freewheeling, kaleidoscopic vision, offering expressionistic audiovisual rhymes for Yorick, Andrzej and Marta’s desultory, carnivalesque follies, maintaining a captivating revel even when the mood of this most baroque of films turns grimly mordant.
The viewer is advised by “Jakubisko” at the outset that “this story has a tragic ending. But laugh if you feel like it. Our heroes do so too… until the very end, that is”. That the lead character’s name is Yorick – that of Hamlet’s dead jester – should also adequately telegraph moribundity. Nonetheless, the dénouement still shocks. Yorick, after a year’s arbitrary detention, is a broken man who’s lost the courage to play the fool; in that time Andrzej and Marta have settled down in a fanciful rooftop apartment all their own and are expecting a child. Visiting Marta, Yorick is in short time overcome with jealousy and commits a dual atrocity before attempting to simultaneously immolate, strangle and drown himself – the latter two after tying himself to the statue of Štefánik, which descends with him off a bridge into the Danube.
The film’s ending was professionally suicidal too. Atop all its other offences against the Party line, the attempted self-immolation echoed that of student Jan Palach’s in Prague’s Wenceslas Square earlier in 1969 and ensured that Birds, after premiering at Czechoslovak Film Week in Sorrento, was – along with Deserter – shelved until 1990. With screaming inevitability, a third highly provocative film in rapid succession written with Karol Sidon, Dovidenia v pekle, priatelia! (See You in Hell, Friends), was banned, this time before shooting was even completed.
See You in Hell, Friends was eventually completed, and premiered, in 1990. Meantime, Jakubisko was able to work but was seldom allowed to tap his extraordinary gift for Felliniesque mayhem or cater to his more experimental impulses. There is a notable exception: a short film commissioned by the Czechoslovak Red Cross on the subject of – wouldn’t you know it – orphaned children. Bubeník Červeného kríža (The Red Cross Drummer, 1977) is 14 extraordinary minutes of unrelentingly eerie psychedelia and a stunning distillation of Jakubisko’s aesthetic sensibilities and prowess which sadly would not otherwise find full expression again until after 1989’s Velvet Revolution.
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Vtáčkovia, siroty a blázni (Birds, Orphans and Fools, 1969 Czechoslovakia & France 78 min)
Prod. Co: Štúdio hraných filmov Bratislava / Como Films Lux c.c.f. Paris Prod: Samy Halfon Dir: Juraj Jakubisko Scr: Juraj Jakubisko, Karol Sidon Phot: Igor Luther Mus: Zdeněk Liška Ed: Maximilián Remeň, Bob Wade Art Dir: Anton Krajčovič Cost: Milena Doskočová, Helena Anýžová
Cast: Philippe Avron, Magda Vášáryová, Jiří Sýkora, Míla Beran, Francoise Goldité
- Antonín J. Liehm, Closely Watched Films: The Czechoslovak Experience (London: Routledge Revivals edition, Routledge, 2018), p. 354. “Stanislaw Kutz” is surely an error; I think Liehm must have meant Kazimierz Kutz. ↩
- FAMU is the storied Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. ↩
- Fascinatingly, Karol Sidon is nowadays the Chief Rabbi of the Czech Republic. ↩
- See especially Dovidenia v pekle, priatelia! (See You in Hell, Friends, 1970/1990), Sedím na konári a je mi dobre (Sitting on a Branch, Enjoying Myself, 1989) and Lepšie byť bohatý a zdravý ako chudobný a chorý (It’s Better to Be Wealthy and Healthy Than Poor and Ill, 1992). Aptly, Birds, Orphans and Fools is often considered to form a “loose trilogy” with these titles and Deserter and the Nomads in various combinations. ↩
- Jakubisko in Liehm, p. 360. ↩
- Academia Istropolitana official website, https://www.acadistr.sk/, accessed 20 July 2020. ↩
- Most famously, there’s Roman Polanski’s Dwaj ludzie z szafą (Two Men and a Wardrobe, 1958) but see also Jan Švankmajer’s Picknick mit Weissman (Picnic with Weissmann, 1968) and Žvahlav aneb šatičky slaměného Huberta (Jabberwocky, 1971). ↩